Bad Phone Behavior or Locatable?

Is Mom’s phone open 24/7 for notifications?

A phone with a text message that says "Where are you?" Do we need to be locatable all the time?
Is it Bad Phone Behavior if we are not always Locatable?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is this bad phone behavior or am I right? Is it necessary to get up in the morning and check first thing for messages? My son drives a truck for a living and lives a few hours away. He got mad when I didn’t look at an early morning text he sent from the road. He was nearby and planned to stop in for breakfast and a swim in the pool. But I had my coffee, read the newspapers, and did an errand so I missed him. He was upset. Stella, Vallejo


Dear Stella, I love getting questions about “bad phone behavior” but in this case I can’t decide if the “bad phone behavior” is on him or on you!

I imagine that you are from a generation that does planning in advance, and is not accustomed to last minute changes in the itinerary. That makes sense in the days before smartphones, and that was barely twelve years ago. If you had to meet someone, say at a train station or in a foreign city, you set up a fixed spot (always under the train clock!) where you would find each other. And, you demarked the precise time. If one of you got delayed, you had a backup plan like circle back to the clock in two hours time.

In fact, an early study of flip phones communications showed that most of the messaging back and forth was advance planning of places and times to meet.

Just in Time Meet-UP:

Now, with smartphones that exigency has flown out the window. We can do “just in time” meet-ups or even let someone follow our travel route in real time. There are fewer slipups and we can be more spontaneous about getting together as your son was. But, it also means that we can be more capricious. Perhaps you have friends that want to set up a time to meet, and then, just a few minutes before, they text that they are stuck in traffic, etc.

But, your question about “text in the morning” gets to a deeper question. At what time, or times of the day are we required to be “reachable” by phone, and what time of the day are we off-line? Previously I have lauded The Digital Sabbath, Tiffany Shlain’s counsel that we take family time once a week, to be completely offline.

BuFFER TIMES:

Perhaps we need additional buffer time, say early in the morning and late in the evening to be offline too? It is not a new idea, and thought leaders like Cal Newport have cited the need to bring deliberation and focus to these bookended hours. Imagine the bookends as an OFF switch in which you stay ON!

Clearly if you are in sales and you are expected to be online, you and your boss have to work out the hours in which you will take a call. And, if you drive a truck and are on the clock, you are scanning for traffic and your next haul. But, if you are drinking your coffee and reading your newspapers (yay), then I don’t see why the inner voice to check messages takes precedent.

TWO APPROACHES:

Fortunately, there are two ways that you and your son can connect better for the future. One is old tech and the other is new. First, new tech. Phones have a feature called “Do Not Disturb.” Here, under settings, you set a time period in which you will not receive phone calls and notifications. However, you denote exceptions for certain people, like family members or emergencies. If you organize your phone’s settings this way, the notification from your son will ring through.

The other way to connect with him is old-school but it makes planning airtight. Ask him to ‘put a ring on it.’ It’s an old idea but a single ding-ding call now and then can replace a thousand texts and misunderstandings.

Fake Location, Real Takeout

Cartoon sketch of delivery person on bike and smartphone where orders are sent in.
Fake locations and takeout. Image: perceptionsystem (2020)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: A fake location led me to find real takeout! I just moved to a new neighborhood and decided to get takeout for dinner. A delivery app helped me pick a local barbecue and the food was delish. In fact, so good that I popped the name into my GPS. It turns out that the restaurant is not in my neighborhood at all. The barbecue is prepared offsite and delivered from a central kitchen. Are fake locations popping up everywhere or is this a one-off? Phillip, Brookline

Dear Phillip, The abbreviation for barbecue, BBQ, is sometimes used to spell out “Better Be Quick! ” This is the ultimate convergence of food and delivery! 

Now, two possible reasons for the fake-take:

First, delivery services, like Grubhub , Postmates and DoorDash have been said to contrive this as a “growth hacking” strategy. (sorry, I can’t check the source to know the veracity). They create restaurant listings on their platforms- even though individual restaurants have not partnered with them. It helps the delivery services expand the number of restaurants customers see, and it helps businesses that are in cahoots with them. You mentioned you were in Brookline –  they create a bogus listing for “Brookline Barbecues” and cook elsewhere.

That said, “Brookline Barbecues (BB1)” could be an offshoot of an established restaurant say “Boston Barbecues (BB2).” The tech savvy team at BB2 wants to expand their reach so they set up links on their website that lead you to the wrong location, literally!  Google has rigid rules for linking business accounts with physical addresses, but there would be ways to mislead customers doing an online search, particularly if they were new in town like you.

Death of Distance

The “Death of Distance” is not a trivial problem. This past summer I answered a question from a reader who lamented that her vacation planning was limited by choices she got from the search-engine. It turned out there were other options but they had not been “up-listed” (i.e., paid) to show up. At the end of the day, we want to help and support local businesses but it’s the bigger companies, and the younger, more tech savvy owners that know how to optimize SEO to their advantage.

Identifying a local business is no longer as simple as thumbing through a print catalog called the yellow pages. Even back then, the business addresses were a combination of listings that were no-fee and paid-fee. Going forward, you might want to combat Internet with Internet. Consider using a platform, say Nextdoor, in your new community. First, they will verify your physical address. If you read posts carefully and slowly you can usually sort out real recommendations by real people.

Delivery by Foot

But back to the dodgy barbecue. We all want local businesses to succeed, and that’s the reason so many people have ordered online and used delivery services during the pandemic. The delivery practice you describe ends up hurting small businesses with minimal or no internet presence. Without constantly checking around for new sites or listings, it’s impossible to know whether someone’s created a duplicate site to mislead customers into thinking they are ordering directly from an on-site restaurant. The best advice is to get out your walking shoes, take a stroll, and check out the new neighborhood.

Is My App Private?

A  bar chart showing the average number of SDKS in school utility apps by phone type and by public vs. private schools
Is My App Private- average # of SDKs . Source: Me2ba.org. Read their summary for how apps are categorized into 3 types.


Dear Ms. Smartphone: At my high school the principal enters her best students in an online sweepstakes. We get freebies and discounts when our name is drawn. That seems great but now I get ads on my phone from the places I visit plus emails to enlist in the military, to join climate action groups, and to even get credit cards! I am beginning to wonder whether that app is private. Meanwhile, seniors, like me, are required to use special apps if we tutor after-school. We also use the school’s choice of apps for transportation and the year-book. I have a cyber-aware friend who studies this and she says we are being sold out. Justin, Burlingame

Dear Justin: Hopefully you are only receiving a digital heap of senior year marketing. Conventionally, juniors and seniors get mountains of unsolicited mail, as the College Board and other testing services resell student names and addresses. But, why have those solicitations moved to the phone?

Gizmodo reported this week that many school utility apps were sharing some amount of data with third-party marketing companies. A non-profit called Me2ba randomly tested 73 apps from 38 schools and found that they majority of the apps added code (SDKs) that could access phone data. The code, for example, might try to record a student’s location, their contact list, photos and even Google or Iphone ad identifiers. So, the answer to ‘Is My App Private’ is a resounding ‘No.’

FREE DATA BUT NO LUNCH

There’s an expression that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and that holds double when it comes to digital matters. We all know, or should know, that we pay for “free” email and “free” searches with our attention and search history. Perhaps the school administrators just didn’t know or care.

Before the Internet it was simpler: schools issued directories with students’ names, home address, and contact number. School administrators then asked parents to keep the directories private. Not everyone followed the rules. With the Internet, the scale of misuse is bigger and dangerous. Perhaps you read the story this week about the millions of fake comments on the FCC plan to scale back net neutrality in 2016. A 19 year old student was responsible for 7.7 million comments generated using websites that create names, physical addresses and email addresses!

SCHOOLS HAVE TO LEARN

School officials, at least the ones in your high school, are supposed to protect you and keep you safe…but they don’t seem to be aware of the risk that they might be putting you at online. That academic sweepstakes sounds particularly dodgy! The irony is that these are the same institutions that we depend on to teach digital citizenship and digital literacy.

In a previous post I gave directions for reviewing the apps on your phone, and checking their permissions. It’s a good idea to share this with other students in your school, and make them more aware of the data trail they may leave behind. I hope that you, and the friend you mentioned, go on to college and study computer science, as what you mention is a real threat for future generations.